Thomas Jefferson and I

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Tony Fischer, Portrait by Rembrandt Peale, Courtesy of the New York Historical Society
Thomas Jefferson is an icon of American democracy, and yet he was one of the largest slaveholders in Virginia during his time.

In the eyes of many, Thomas Jefferson embodies the contradictions of the young American republic. The principal writer of the Declaration of Independence was a man deeply committed to the democratic and equalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment and who professed to hate slavery. Yet, he was at the same time one of the largest slaveholders of Virginia and emancipated very few of his own slaves. Considering most Africans to be inferior intellectually and physically to Europeans and fearing racial mixing, he was also what we would today call a “racist.” However, Jefferson probably fathered several children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Most people, and indeed most historians, find these apparent contradictions extremely puzzling.1 I don’t.

I don’t because, like Donella Meadows some 16 years ago,2 I very much identify with the paradoxes and dilemmas Jefferson must have felt during his lifetime regarding slavery. Like him, I am a large slave-holder. Like him, I consider the idea of owning slaves to be abhorrent but feel as though I cannot really do without them. Like him, I fear that without these slaves my world, indeed our entire civilization, would collapse. I sympathize with his feeling that slavery was like “holding a wolf by the ears”—we cannot hold it, but we cannot let it go either.3 Like him, I feel these slaves have a corrupting influence on me and on society in general. Like him I believe that it’s a great evil to own these slaves, but since society around me finds this largely acceptable, I carry on. Like him, I love books and the life of the intellect and feel that if I had to do all the chores that are necessary to sustain my everyday life, I would be left with no time to read and write these books. Like him, I like the comfort slaves bring me. Like him, I consider myself a decent person: I have never broken up any slave families nor whipped anyone. This is because my slaves, unlike his, are (mostly) not human beings. They are “energy slaves”—a term coined by Buckminster Fuller in the 1940s to designate modern machines that perform the same services slaves and servants used to provide for their owners.

Oh, yes, you must think, “How dare you!” But these kinds of “slaves” are perfectly acceptable: they don’t suffer, they don’t cry, they don’t want to run away.

The problem does not stem from the machines themselves but from the fossil fuels and the nuclear power plants that are necessary for them to run. Energy comes at an increasingly great economic, social, and moral cost. The first issue concerns the procurement of oil or gas—an activity that is often very messy environmentally and politically. The necessity for the Western World to guarantee the constant flow of oil at gas stations is a direct or indirect source of corruption and a cause of conflict throughout the world (think of Iraq and the Gulf wars). It poses risks to the national security of the US and other industrialized nations because it places these countries in a situation of dependency on oil suppliers. Even “home grown” oil and gas are not bereft of problems: domestic production scars the landscape, disturbs ecosystems, and exposes the environment to the dangers of large-scale pollution. The long-term environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” are not at all well understood. If history teaches us anything, it’s that technologies once hailed as today’s solutions often turn out to be tomorrow’s problems. Yet, due to the pressure to extricate the United States from a cycle of energy dependence that involves countries the American government would prefer not to depend upon, most people and politicians prefer to look the other way—even when the risk of causing earthquakes and polluting aquifers are not negligible.

There are also problems of pollution caused by cars and other fossil fuel-powered devices. In the past century, the number of lives claimed by atmospheric pollution exceeded the combined casualties of World War I and II.4 The direct consequences of the use of fossil fuels have been known for some time, but the advantages seemed, until recently, to outweigh the disadvantages to the extent that few voices raised moral concerns over the use of cars.


Daniel Foster
American dependence on fossil fuels has fueled international conflict and resulted in practices harmful to the environment both abroad and domestically, such as the controversial method of fracking.

As powerfully demonstrated at Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear power (fission) is not without major problems either. Despite attracting far more opposition worldwide, it remains to be seen whether this option is truly more dangerous than coal-burning plants. Without even taking into account deaths attributed to climate change, known coal production casualties, which include mine fatalities and those who have succumbed to atmospheric pollution-induced fatal illness, far exceed the number of lives taken by nuclear energy mishaps.

As for renewables, they look great on paper but are not perfect either. Wind turbines and solar installations are difficult to scale up quickly (it takes a lot of them to produce the same power as a coal or nuclear plant), kill birds, and generate opposition from those who do not like their “aesthetic pollution.” And because the sun does not always shine nor the winds constantly blow, they are most of the time coupled with old-fashioned gas or coal stations—as seen in places like Germany where the government has recently begun to phase out nuclear power and adopt a hybrid system consisting of both renewables and fossil fuels.

A second problem linked with our use of fossil fuel is that cheap fuel has enabled us to push modern forms of “real” slavery far from view. Working conditions that we do not find acceptable in our countries have been outsourced. In China, India, and Africa, workers labor from sunset to sundown harvesting cotton and cocoa beans and producing computer tablets for consumers in the rich world. Oftentimes, this work is performed in appalling conditions for very low wages. There are currently an estimated 27 million slaves in the world, possibly more than at any other time in history.5 A US website sponsored by the State Department allows users to estimate the total number of people—including children—working in slave-like conditions to manufacture our food, clothing, and electronics.6 Utilizing this tool, I calculated my own slave footprint to be 44. If transportation were not so cheap due to the relatively low cost of fossil fuels, it would be more difficult to delocalize slavery, and we would find it less acceptable if we had to confront it face to face. We would be less inclined to act like nonslave owners who bought goods made by slaves or absentee plantation owners who benefited from the income from their plantation without ever becoming directly involved in the dirty business of disciplining their slaves.

There are also other moral problems associated with the use of slaves, real or virtual. As Jefferson found, slavery degrades both the slaves and their owners. For Adam Smith, slavery was mostly driven not by economic motivation (he wrongly believed slavery to be unprofitable), but by the desire to dominate others. The same desire to assert superiority can certainly be found in the aspiration of people to acquire large gas-guzzling SUVs that confer little advantage on the well-paved roads of our cities (except perhaps increasing the sex appeal of their drivers).

The last, but not the least, problem concerns climate change. This is a new complication. Before NASA’s Jim Hansen caused a stir in Congress and beyond in June 1988 by claiming that the atmosphere was warming because of human activities and that we ought to do something about it, there was little public awareness about this “glitch” on the path to progress. Today, one just needs to read the summary of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to see that the consequences are not benign.

Of course, there are still many people who doubt the reality of climate change or the human responsibility in the matter. Lobbies in the fossil fuel industry organized systematic disinformation campaigns when they realized climate change could cause harm to their interests by altering the moral landscape.7 These lobbies and their think-tanks have had huge success in sowing confusion in people’s minds because we, the public, have a strong vested interest in ignoring the consensus view on climate science. In a way, this is not dissimilar to the way slave owners in the past had an interest in believing that their “peculiar institution” was benign (some people in fact suggested it was for the slaves’ own good). This is why it is much harder to convince leaders to act on fossil fuels than it was with CFCs.8 As Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary [or his lifestyle] depends upon his not understanding it!”9

The moral implications of climate change are not benign either. In the same way as those who benefited from the labor of slaves were different from those toiling in the cotton fields, those benefiting from the “work” (in the sense physicists use the word) performed by fossil-fuel powered machines are not the same as those bearing the costs. These costs were “externalized” by slave-owners to their slaves and third parties and are also “exported” by us both to the poor (who are primarily affected by droughts or floods today—natural phenomena often strengthened by climate change) and future generations.10 As a journalist justly remarked, “just as the victims of slavery were distant unknowns to most Englishmen and women, so the victims of climate change mostly live in strange, far-off lands (including the future) and thus have no vote.”11

Most historians agree that we should only judge people living in the past according to the standards that prevailed in their time. Indeed, postwar psychology studies that looked at how ordinary, intelligent, mentally healthy people become perpetrators of evil has established convincingly that people with no evil intent can easily cause harm to others within a social context that allows it. We should keep this in mind not only when we think about slavery, but also when we consider the present state of affairs. If, one day, our present cavalier attitude towards fossil fuel is severely and widely condemned by society—as I believe it will be, sooner or later—what will our children think of our current attitude? They will find it hard to accept our justifications, even though they presently seem absolutely compelling to us (the fact that ordinary citizens do something that will in time be seen as morally wrong—like slavery—is not an attempt to rehabilitate slavery or excuse Thomas Jefferson’s indiscretion).12


Mark Woodbury
Freeing Americans from their “energy slaves” would require a significant shift in lifestyle.

Of course, the problem is that our machines powered by fossil fuels are not without huge advantages. With the new powers given to us by these machines in the 20th century “we banished some historical constraints on health and population, food production, energy use, and consumption generally. Few who know anything about life with these constraints regret their passing.”4 As the history of Haiti powerfully demonstrates, countries that have limited access to fossil fuels or renewable energy can rapidly be transformed into near desert landscapes when population densities increase. Machines have become de facto replacements for slaves in our contemporary world, and this substitution was initially seen as a great social and moral progress. Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891 that “all unintellectual labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals with dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. (…) The fact is that civilization requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”13 But since Wilde wrote these lines, we now know the consequences of the burning of fossil fuels and we cannot view the slavery of the machine in the same light.

In his play, Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe tells a powerful cautionary tale. In the story, Faust strikes a bargain with the devil: in exchange for his soul, he is granted unlimited power for a limited time. He uses this power to perform wonders, travel by “flying chariot,” and enjoy eating grapes in the middle of the winter (the story was written well before humans were able to fly and shop in supermarkets). After 24 years, the devil’s agent comes back and drags Faust to hell. He begs for mercy—but it’s too late. “If you did not know any better,” writes George Monbiot, “you could mistake this story for a metaphor of climate change.” Monbiot further writes:

Faust is humankind, restless, curious, unsated. Mephistopheles, who appears in the original English text as a “fiery man,” is fossil fuel. Faust’s miraculous abilities are the activities fossil fuel permits. Twenty-four years is the period—about half the true span—in which they have enabled us [or at least some of us] to live in all voluptuousness. And the flames of hell—well, I think you’ve probably worked that out for yourself. Of course, Doctor Faustus is not an allegory of climate change. But the intention of the poet does not affect the power of the metaphor. Our use of fossil fuels is a Faustian pact.14

Our abundant energy gives us an extraordinary power, and this is why it is so hard to do away with all the luxuries provided by our modern machines—even when we are convinced that using them is morally wrong. I feel this great contradiction every day: on the one hand, I very much wish to see fewer, more fuel efficient cars on the streets. But on the other hand, I very much enjoy taking a car for a weekend excursion. In principle, I am definitely in favor of lowering my carbon footprint. In reality, I continue to fly to far away destinations.

Thomas Jefferson faced the same conundrums. Like many people today, he spent most of his life living on credit: he couldn’t free most of his slaves because they were mortgaged as collateral for his large debts, and laws in Virginia made it illegal for people to free their slaves if they were in debt.15 And he knew that even if he released his own human chattel from bondage, the heinous institution would probably still endure. That is to say that his gesture would likely have been symbolic— it might have made him feel virtuous, but it would very likely have had a limited effect on the larger picture. He knew George Washington had freed his slaves in his will, with no noticeable effect. Like Jefferson, I know that if I forgo my “energy slaves” (i.e. reduce my carbon footprint), the effect on the atmosphere, climate, and pollution will be negligible: it might make me feel less guilty, but it would otherwise have no discernible consequence—a textbook example of what economists call a public goods problem. (The scenario is worse in the case of fossil fuel use: even if I were able to stop using petroleum today, I would not see the benefits of my action; whereas Jefferson, had he freed his slaves, would at least have been able to see the immediate effect).

This absolutely does not mean that I—we—should not try to reduce our footprint on this earth; there are many other benefits from living more slowly, more locally, and less wastefully. Individual actions do matter. Political movements start with the actions of individuals: if Jefferson had freed his slaves, it could have sent a strong sign to others (not to mention what it might have meant to the slaves themselves). If I buy a smaller car, or fly less, or waste less, I model to my neighbors steps that they too could take. All social and political movements have to start somewhere and that somewhere is either with the actions of ordinary citizens or with prominent leaders, like Thomas Jefferson.

Yet, freeing slaves, real or virtual, is costly and painful. Like slave owners of the past, I am entangled in my contradictions. I think I understand only too well the dilemma Jefferson faced over slavery.

The arguments in this article are developed in a longer article and a book.16,17